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State officials decline to attend town hall to discuss AltEn Ethanol concerns
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State officials decline to attend town hall to discuss AltEn Ethanol concerns

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WAHOO -- Residents of Mead anticipated learning more about ongoing environmental contamination originating from AltEn in a community meeting with local leaders and officials from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy on March 1.

On Tuesday, Saunders County Attorney Joe Dobesh said the meeting to discuss the troubled ethanol plant had been called off after state officials earlier this week turned down the county's invitation to participate.

"This is extremely disappointing," Dobesh told the Saunders County Board of Supervisors.

"What our community needs now more than ever is information," he added. "They need to know accurate details of what is happening, what the risks are, and what the state is planning to do."

Those efforts haven't amounted to much until recently, Dobesh said, as state statutes regarding environmental issues are antiquated in Nebraska.

The county had set the special meeting to discuss AltEn weeks before a frozen pipe burst on a 4 million gallon tank at the facility, releasing a combination of thin stillage and cow manure into drainage ditches running from the property.

Likely to be contaminated with pesticides, the spill traveled more than 4 miles from the plant, crossing onto the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center's property about a mile to the south, but stopped short of the Platte River.

The Department of Environment and Energy ordered AltEn to contain the spill to its present location and to remove the waste from the ditches and waterways.

Earlier this year, the department ordered the company to properly dispose of its byproduct, which was found to have unsafe levels of neonicitinoids, a pesticide common in seed treatments, from its property before March 1.

And on Feb. 4, state regulators ordered the plant to cease making ethanol until it disposed of excess, contaminated wastewater and repaired damaged lagoons at the facility.

On Tuesday, Dobesh told supervisors department officials didn't give a reason for declining to take part in next week's meeting.

"I reiterated to them multiple times that we would structure the meeting in any way they preferred, but they declined our invitation," Dobesh said.

Supervisor Frank Albrecht said without officials from the department responsible for regulating environmental issues in the state present, residents of Mead and the surrounding area wouldn't be able to obtain any answers about the ongoing situation at AltEn.

"We need players there," Albrecht said. "NDEE is the prime person that needs to be there explaining."

The department did not respond immediately Tuesday morning to a request by the Journal Star for comment.

Responding to a recommendation from Dobesh that the board suspend the hearing "until NDEE is ready to present their plan to the public," Supervisor Craig Breunig asked the county attorney if he believed that would happen.

"It has to," Dobesh said.

Jim Macy, head of the state environment department, is set to discuss AltEn with members of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee on Thursday afternoon.

Last week, the committee sent a bill (LB507) from Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, who represents Saunders County in the Legislature, to the floor. The bill would prohibit ethanol companies in Nebraska from using treated seed.

The meeting between Macy and the committee is not open to the public.

At the end of Tuesday's discussion, the board approved an emergency declaration to begin a coordinated response in cleaning up the facility.

Dobesh said the county was requesting more information from the Department of Environment and Energy about potential contamination, and would work to provide regular updates to the public.

But, he warned, the situation may be grim.

"Today, standing before you, I cannot tell you that every family in our community has clean water to drink and every farmer's field is not contaminated," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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